I. INTRODUCTION: ZURÜCKNEHEMEN AND THE DOKTOR FAUSTUS UR-TEXT

 

These texts are not so much an explanation or a theorization of the practice of Zurücknehmen, but rather an integral part of the practice itself extending across word, image and idea. They are an ever shifting and changing set of fragments, a work in progress, a thought in the moment.

Primarily, they are structured by their relation to Thomas Mann’s 1949 novel Doktor Faustus, which can be treated as the current ur-text of the practices of Zurücknehmen. The main image that these all condense around is the black sun, of the blackening of the sun, the progression of reason and culture into perplexity and barbarism and how this can be thought through in its possibility, the impossibilities that it generates and the absolutely vital impetus that can be taken from this thinking. Following this, Zurücknehmen can be considered as an art of difficulty and ugliness, unaccepted and unaccepting of easy answers or smooth communication. It is never at ease in the world, inherently of a melancholic disposition and only at home in the uncanny, the darkness, the demonic and the obscure—this, I assert is the domain of modern art.

The texts here, thus follow a distinct path of argumentation, but are also themselves somewhat distinct, each exploring different images or moments taken from literature, philosophy and art theory. But all start from Mann’s novel and the complex and layered set of thought contained there. Connections will be drawn where possible and the whole will continue to shift and grow as further thought must be discovered or developed

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Doktor Faustus is the biography of Adrian Leverkühn, as recounted by his childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom, who at the same time recounts the catastrophe of the Second World War, which draws to its conclusion as he narrates the life of his friend. Leverkühn is a composer living in the early part of the Twentieth Century, who ‘invents’ the strict style of twelve-tone composition and thus revolutionizes music and by extension art. Later editions of the book included a note explaining that it was Arnold Schoenberg who really developed the twelve-tone system and not the fictional Leverkühn; similarly, it should be stressed that Leverkühn is an entirely fictional character despite this use of a real-world development in early twentieth-century music. The novel, however, works on many more levels.

As its title indicates it is also a re-telling of the Faust myth, and indeed Levekühn makes his own deal with the devil. While traveling to Graz to see the Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, he sleeps with a prostitute and contracts syphilis, his following attempts to receive treatment are both interrupted by seemingly chance, yet somewhat mysterious events—one doctor dies suddenly and the other is arrested, both at the pivotal stage in the treatment. Later, the devil appears to Leverkühn and tells him that the meta-spirochætose making their way to his brain are capable of inducing genius as well as madness and he, the devil, can make certain of this, thus assuring Leverkühn’s genius, but there is a price. The deal that Leverkühn makes with the devil only provides him with 24 years before the madness growing in his spinal cord and brain manifests itself, in addition, in that time he will be unable to love and only ever be cold, distant and intellectual.

The Faustian structure of the story allows Mann to make many parallels and comments on the time in which he, and the fictional Zeitblom, are writing. The most obvious of these is the Second World War and the barbarism of fascism that engulfed the world. This provides a perspective from which Mann and Zeitblom can look back at its developments and make connections across culture, art, politics and philosophy. The question these parallels evoke, just as it is explicitly dismissed in the book, is if it is “possible to connect his [Leverkühn’s] worsening health in any temperamental way with the national misfortune” (342). Just as later the dual reproaches of “blood-boltered barbarism and of bloodless intellectuality” (374), which are brought against Leverkühn, produces another possible connection between the project of ‘rational’ enlightenment and the nightmare of the Second World War. This theme plays throughout the book, but alongside it is a similar question about the condition of modern art and the connection between creativity, genius and madness, as well as the philosophical conditions and aims of art itself. All of these parallels, discussions and evocations come together in Leverkühn’s lament and injunction that he will “take it back.”

This occurs right at the end of the novel, the narrator, Zeitblom recounts a statement given by Leverkühn as he watched his nephew dying. The death of his nephew, Nepomuk, is an instance of how all the things that Leverkühn loves are snatched away from him. I think that the words he speaks at the death of the child go beyond his grief at that mere moment, instead they could almost be a catch-cry of modernism, of that dialectical and complex condition of the world, art, culture and thought at that moment, and which still persists until the present. He says: “I find ... that it is not to be [es soll nicht sein]” and when questioned on what specifically, he elaborates: “The good and the noble, ... what we call the human, although it is good, and noble. What human beings have fought for and stormed citadels, what the ecstatics exultantly announced — that is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back [Ich will es zurücknehmen]” and when questioned what it is he will take back, he replies: “The Ninth Symphony” (478). Zeitblom elaborates on this a few pages later: “My poor, great friend! How often, reading in this achievement of his decline, his posthumous work, which prophetically anticipates so much destruction, have I recalled the distressful words he uttered at the death of the child. It is not to be, goodness, joy, hope, that was not to be, it would be taken back, it must be taken back! ‘Alas, it is not to be!’ How the words stand, almost like a musical direction, above the choral and orchestral movements of ‘Dr. Fausti Wehe-klag’; how they speak in every note and accent of this ‘Ode to Sorrow’! He wrote it, no doubt, with his eye on Beethoven’s Ninth, as its counterpart in a most melancholy sense of the word. But it is not only that it more than once formally negates the symphony, reverses it into the negative; no, for even in the religious it is negative...” (490). Leverkühn’s lament can be used to explicate the condition of modern art, and its philosophies and philosophy itself, as it finds itself in the Twentieth Century and beyond, and it is from this explication that the practice of Zurücknehmen starts and expands. There are many things and ideas hidden within Leverkühn’s lament, which I will attempt to draw out, but they are organized around the observation that it is ‘not to be’ and the injunction to ‘take it back.’ Tied up with this is the prophecy of destruction that Zeitblom identifies and the centrality of melancholy, which is a defining and structuring feature of the book and Leverkühn’s character, and finally the idea of a formal negation.

 

II. A WIND FROM ANOTHER PLANET: LEVERKÜHN, SCHOENBERG AND TWELVE-TONE TECHNIQUE

 

On one level, Leverkühn’s observation and injunction can be read directly in their relationship to Beethoven and this connects up with his role as a composer and the ‘inventor’ of twelve-tone composition. Leverkühn directly refers to the Ninth, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ but his earlier statement “it is not to be [es soll nicht sein]” also refers to Beethoven, specifically the 16th String Quartet and its fourth movement Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß [the difficult decision/resolution] with its refrain of Muss es sein / Es muss sein [must it be / it must be]. I believe, however, that Leverkühn and twelve-tone composition (and modern art and philosophy in general) is not merely a reversal between the ‘must be’ and the ‘not to be;’ but rather that they are conjoined, together and dialectical, the ‘must be’ always contains and implies the ‘not to be’ and that is the contradictory and problematic position of art and thought. Milan Kundera also examines Beethoven’s es muss sein motif in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The story as he tells it is that Beethoven took a trivial matter—a tiny debt that needed to be paid—and created this serious metaphysical injunction, Kundera uses this as an image of the reversal of lightness into weight and seriousness into frivolity. For the es muss sein in fact means the necessity of what is in all the solemnity and ridiculousness of whatever is. But, before the ontological questions of being intrude too much, what of the merely musical interpretation of the refutation of Beethoven?

Doktor Faustus is a fictionalized account of the invention and place of twelve-tone composition, but as such it draws from the undeniable place and power of twelve-tone music in relation to the art of the Twentieth Century and thus it is necessary to examine some of the details of that technique and its history. Twelve-tone composition shares many features with its contemporary artistic, literary and poetric avant-garde movements. It aimed to build on the musical history that had preceded it and yet at the same time to overcome that history and its conventions, to usher in a new artistic form and with it a new artistic age; and to do this not by seduction but by being difficult and obtuse, intellectual and conceptual rather than merely pandering to the senses. At the very start of his 1911 Harmonielehre, Schoenberg, the real inventor of twelve-tone composition, writes that,

 

Our age seeks many things. What it has found, however, is above all: comfort. Comfort, with all its implications, intrudes even into the world of ideas and makes us far more content than we should ever be … the thinker, who keeps on searching, does the opposite. He shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved. As does Strindberg: 'Life makes everything ugly.' Or Maeterlinck 'Three quarters of our brothers [are] condemned to misery.' (2).[1]

 

Schoenberg’s musical system is a denunciation of the comfort of harmony, it shows the world in its ugliness and its misery, its “absurdity and wretchedness” as Tonio Kröger, another of Mann’s tortured artist characters, puts it. Leverkühn’s taking back of the Ninth is a taking back of the joy and the beauty and comfort that Beethoven’s call to brotherhood engenders in its listeners. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, which Mann ascribes to Leverkühn wholesale, does this through the very music that it produces.

Twelve-tone composition adheres to a ‘strict style’, where every note of the chromatic scale must be used once before any of them can repeat. As Leverkühn phrases it in the pivotal chapter XXII of Doktor Faustus, “Not one [note] might recur until the other notes have sounded. Not one might appear which did not fulfill its function in the whole structure. There would no longer be a free note. That is what I would call ‘strict composition’” (191). In this strict style the old system and comfort of harmony is broken, there is no home key for the composition, rather it holds together as an entire and autonomous whole. This is the otherworldly wind that the voice in Scheonberg’s Second String Quartet speaks of: “I feel the wind of another planet [Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten];” a wind that blows away the conventions and crutches of the old system and builds a new, intellectual and difficult one in its place.

The reversal at work from Beethoven’s es muss sein and the ‘Ode to Joy’ is not only the obvious one that asserts es soll nicht sein and the ‘Ode to Sorrow’ of Leverkühn’s final composition, ‘The Lamentation of Dr. Faust’ (although melancholy is an important element of the work). The reversal works at the level of the very form of the music itself, from the ‘natural’ harmony and comfort of romanticism to the dissonances of the twelve-tone system. It is a shift in how music itself is organized and thus a shift in the way the world is presented. In shifting the possibilities of the world, in making it otherworldly, Leverkühn calls into question the presentation of the smooth progression of history as also the progression of humanity. Here the ontological issues of being touched upon in Kundera’s analysis of the es muss sein begin to come to the fore.

Kundera returns to this image late in his own novel almost to mock the seriousness of what he calls “The Grand March”, the supposed progression of civilization and its triumph over barbarism. For Kundera the serious becomes trivial as the grand march dissolves into kitsch (there is a critique of postmodernism there, and elements of Doktor Faustus touch on this as well, as will be examined below) and expresses something of the ridiculous seriousness of humanity, but for Mann and Leverkühn it is something more serious and more sinister—their time demanded it. That time is of course that of the Second World War and the atrocities committed over its course, and above all, everything that is subsumed under the name of Auschwitz. The utopia universal brotherhood that Beethoven beckoned towards in the ‘Ode to Joy’ never arose. Instead the enlightenment ended up in the extermination camps and total mechanized warfare, and all civilization and culture revealed itself as not just the vacuousness of kitsch, but rather as a brutal form of barbarism.

 

III. BARBARISM AND CULTURE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

 

The images of culture and barbarism are are entwined together in many places throughout Doktor Faustus: Leverkühn asserts that “After all, barbarism is the opposite of culture only within the order of thought which it gives us. Outside of it the opposite might be something quite different or no opposite at all” (59); Zeitblom observes that “There is an outcry over these crimes against culture, crimes that we ourselves invoked; how strange it sounds in the mouths of those who trod the boards of history as the heralds and bringers of a world-rejuvenating barbarism, reveling in atrocity” (173); and, “from Shakespeare too come the ideas wrenched out of their order in which the conceptions ‘culture’ and ‘barbarism’ play such a singular role” (217); the devil himself assures Leverkühn that he “will break through time itself, by which I mean the cultural epoch and its cult, and dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed, because of coming after the humane, after all possible root-treatment and bourgeois refinement. Believe me, barbarism even has more grasp of theology than a culture fallen away from the cult” (243); Leverkühn echoes this in his condemnation of harmony, “It was the same thing, he said, with the change-over of music from monody to part-music, to harmony, which people liked to think of as cultural progress, when actually it had been just an acquisition of barbarism” (280); and as Zeitblom summarizes the times, “Here no one can follow me who has not as I have experienced in his very soul how near aestheticism and barbarism are to each other: aestheticism as the herald of barbarism” (373). As these quotes suggest there is a lot of slippage going on in this relationship between culture and barbarism. For on the one hand, it is the cultural condition of Germany as one of aestheticization that is accused of being the herald of barbarism (this is a point that will connect up with the suggestion that kitsch and realism may be heralds of fascism), on the other, it is also the barbarism (twice barbarism) of Leverkühn’s ‘strict style’ that can cut through this cultural condition. Like the es muss sein, es soll nicht sein duality, culture and barbarism as inextricably bound.

This binding together of culture and barbarism recalls Walter Benjamin’s 1937 assertion that “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (35). A sentiment that was redoubled in the thought of his friend Theodor Adorno, who writes in his Minima Moralia, or as the subtitle puts it Reflections from Damaged Life, of “the barbarism that culture is reproached with furthering directly” (44); and, echoing the devil’s ‘twice barbaric’ description of Leverkühn, “Progress and barbarism are today so matted together in mass culture that only barbaric asceticism towards the latter, and towards progress in technical means, could restore an unbarbaric condition” (50). Adorno in fact, was a consultant to Thomas Mann as he was writing Doktor Faustus, as they both were living in exile in Los Angeles at the time of its composition. Adorno had studied music under Alban Berg, who was himself a student of Schoenberg and thus was highly familiar with the twelve-tone system. Indeed, Adorno championed the difficulty of twelve-tone composition as a ‘new music’ that stood in opposition to the sentiment and kitsch of fascism and consumerism, which he saw as the same thing, or at least closely related. Adorno was acutely aware of the dangers of barbarism, he had fled Germany to avoid persecution, his friend Benjamin had died attempting to escape in Spain to take passage to America. In Minima Moralia, which was written in the same years that Mann was writing Doktor Faustus, he extends the barbarism of the War beyond its confines in Europe as it infects life itself: “The idea that after this war life will continue ‘normally’ or even that culture might be ‘rebuilt’—as if the rebuilding of culture were not already its negation—is idiotic. Millions of Jews have been murdered, and this is to be seen as an interlude and not the catastrophe itself … as long as blow is followed by counter-blow, catastrophe is perpetuated” (55). And in Prisms, in the essay ‘Cultural Criticism and Society,’ he famously presents the most pertinent problem of the times and of the dialectic of culture and barbarism: “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (33). All of this reveals why, in Leverkühn’s words, the good and the noble is not to be. Everything that is presents as a progression or a development in human culture and history is nullified by the catastrophe that was its result. To ‘take it back’ is not to undo all that attempted progress, but rather to show that from that start what must be also is not to be. In this style, Adorno, also is not merely lamenting the intertwining of culture and barbarism, for all the “melancholy” of the “science” of Minima Moralia, as he characterizes it in the Dedication (15), he is also a critic who attempts to understand and explain how this catastrophe arose, how the utopianism of the enlightenment became the nightmare of Auschwitz.

In his The Dialectic of Enlightenment (written with Max Horkheimer, also first published in 1947) the very first lines read: “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human being from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (1). The issue here is how did the project of enlightenment lead to the abyss of totalitarianism? And the answer they provide is that, in a sense, the danger was there from the start “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology” (xviii). This analysis moves away from the details of either culture or barbarism, of those of the catastrophe/calamity itself, and instead focuses on the very essence of enlightenment and rationality itself, and it is in this shift in point of analysis that what is important about reason itself begins to appear. While Adorno and Horkheimer’s specific diagnosis—in the set of connections that move from myth and superstition, alchemy, numerology and demonology, to reason itself and back—is original and of interest for both the relation to Doktor Faustus and also to Zurücknehemen, what is much more importance, and what is not particular to their analysis, is that it is all tied up within the progression of reason itself.

 

IV. THE PERPLEXITY OF REASON: KANT AND ‘SUPERIOR’ PHILOSOPHY

 

Such an emphasis on reason itself, and the realization that in and of itself reason falls into contradiction and problems (let alone barbarism), has its most emphatic elucidation in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. This is the critical point around which the practice and theory of Zurücknehmen turns, that, as Kant summarizes in the Preface to the Critique,

 

Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own. It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it. With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions. But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them. But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions, from which it can indeed surmise that it must somewhere be proceeding on the ground of hidden errors; but it cannot discover them, for the principles on which it is proceeding, since they surpass the bounds of all experience, no longer recognize any touchstone of experience (Avii-viii).

 

There is not time or space here to explore or explain the entirety of Kant’s Critical system, that will have to happen elsewhere as different aspects become pertinent. Instead, its outline can be sketched and the important points intimated, and then, in place of a full exploration, several images can be put forward that will tie the Critical philosophy back to Doktor Faustus and to the practice of Zurücknehmen.

Kant’s insight is that reason itself, when left to its own devices, oversteps its own reach and transgresses the boundaries of knowledge. In doing so it produces illusions of transcendent objects—specifically, of the soul, God and the world—which in fact are supersensible and thus not capable of being known empirically through experience. Importantly, this progression and transgression that reason falls prey to, is not an accident of reason, but rather something necessary and inherent to it. In a way, the transgressions of reason are then similar to the ‘necessity’ that Schoenberg saw in his own overcoming of the history of music as one of harmony (Ross, 57), and this is merely one of the formal similarities between the transgression of reason that Kant diagnosis and the transgressive imperative of the modernist avant-garde. The system that Kant develops, in light of this tendency of reason to fall into error and illusion, is one that is transcendental and critical, that is, it examines the conditions of possibility of knowledge in order to determine its elements, limits and boundaries and thus curb the pretentions of speculative reason, which proceeds beyond the bounds of sense. The Critique of Pure Reason sets out the details of the conditions of knowledge, the sensible and conceptual faculties as well as the deduction of the justification and mechanism of their synthesis. It also diagnoses the illusion that reason creates as it extends beyond the justified territory determined by Kant’s deduction and falls prey to the subreptic fallacy, treating the supersensible creations of reason as if they were sensible objects of knowledge capable of being experienced and understood. Some of the specific details of Kant’s system will play out for the artistic practice of Zurücknehmen, most obviously the treatment of the aporias of space and time in terms of the ‘innerness’ of absolute space and the problems and disruptions that creates; but more pressingly for the understanding of Doktor Faustus and the dialectic of culture and barbarism, is Kant’s analysis of the philosophy that follows reason out onto the seas of illusion and into speculation, what he calls philosophy in a “superior tone.”

Kant discerns this tone in an essay titled On a Newly Arisen Superior Tone in Philosophy, yet what he discusses there is no so much a new form of philosophy, but rather an old one with its roots in Plato. Neither is Kant’s analysis of this ‘newly arisen’ tone anything new, rather, it is a reiteration of his criticism of the dogmatic assumption of a “faculty of intellectual intuition” (8: 389, see B308 for a passage dealing with intellectual intuition in the Critique). This faculty corresponds to the rationalist’s desire to intuit and comprehend the world through reason alone, and in this way is suspect for Kant because it “would immediately present the object and grasp it all at once” (8: 389). He contrasts this with his own Critical philosophy, which must examine and analyze the concepts that it uses, determining their structure and their suitability for application in terms of knowledge. It is because intellectual intuition claims to be able to bypass the laborious process of critiquing concepts and deducing their applicability to experience that it claims to be superior. Kant writes how, “all think themselves superior to the degree that they think themselves exempt from work … in this philosophy one need not work but only listen and enjoy the oracle within oneself in order to bring all the wisdom envisioned with philosophy into one’s possession” (8: 390). It is the immediacy of both perception and understanding that, as with the phrase ‘intellectual intuition,’ implies a direct connection of reason and empirical perception, but one that in a sense remains mysterious and problematic. It is the immediacy of this connection and its directness, which bypasses the need for any intellectual labor to determine it, that gives rise to the tone of superiority in such philosophy. What is interesting is the way in which it is through presenting this immediacy purely as sensibility or feeling, in other words, as empiricism, that this philosophy operates; Kant writes: “The principle of wanting to philosophize under the influence of a higher feeling is, among all principles, the one best suited to produce a superior tone.” (8: 395). Sensibility appears as the most direct form of philosophy that does not require the mediation of thought, let alone language, and precludes, and prejudges as indirect and thus inferior, any need for justification. In contrast this superior tone declares: “Long live philosophy drawn from feelings, a philosophy that leads us directly to the things themselves!” (8: 395). In revealing the secrets of the world directly through feeling, without the need, or even possibility, to justify or explain how this is possible actually only ever perpetuates the secret of the world by falling into mysticism. Any explanation of the operation of feeling would itself already demean the validity of that feeling and as such the exact determinations of that feeling themselves remain totally mysterious. In Heideggerian terms, the superior philosophy of feeling must hide its own unconcealedness in order to show what it reveals, but this allows anything to be presented as known through feeling without any way to justify it.

The poetic image of this process that Kant provides is in terms of the unveiling of the goddess Isis by the superior philosophy, which cannot totally remove the veil, but only make it so thin so as to “intimate the goddess under the veil,” but the advantage of this is that “Precisely how thin is not said; presumably just thick enough so that one can make the spectre into whatever one wants” (8:399). This image, of the goddess only intimated under the veil, recurs in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, where, in §49 Kant outlines the “aesthetic ideas,” the “representation of the imagination that that occasions much thinking through without it being possible for any determinate thought, i.e., concept, to be adequate to it,” which he immediately notes “is the counterpart (pendant) of an idea of reason, which is, conversely a concept to which no intuition (representation of the imagination) can be adequate” (5: 314). Following this distinction Kant refers back to the sublime, which he has discussed earlier in the Critique of Judgment, and then in a footnote observes that “Perhaps nothing more sublime has ever been said, or any thought more sublimely expressed, than in the inscription over the temple of Isis (Mother Nature): ‘I am all that is, that was, and that will be, and my veil no mortal has removed’” (5: 316). There are several connections of note here. Firstly, between Isis—and thus philosophy in the superior tone—and the sublime, which will come to play an important role in mediating prompting the ‘voice of reason,’ and thus walking the line between the labor of the Critical philosophy and the directness of the superior one. Secondly, via the curious ‘aesthetic ideas’ of the third Critique, Kant’s notion of the ideas of reason emerges, which again connects with the superior philosophy and its endorsement of intellectual intuition.

Kant discusses the ideas of reason at the start of the Transcendental Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is the properly critical part of the Critique, where Kant demonstrates how exactly reason argues against itself, dialectically supporting opposing positions, both of which are consistent and entirely rational. Kant refers directly to Plato and his use of the expression ‘idea’ as he introduces his own notion of ideas of reason (A313/B370), or as he develops them “transcendental ideas” (A321/B378). These ideas are the illusions produced as the three forms of the syllogism—the categorical, hypothetical and disjunctive, themselves determined by the three categories of relation, inherence, causality and community—progress beyond their sensual bounds and progress from the conditioned relations of ideas in order to seek the unconditioned and supersensible (A326/B382). The three disciplines that correspond to these transgressions—rational psychology, cosmology and theology—produce three Ideas—the soul, the world and God—which present themselves as supersensible objects of enquiry, and in turn reveal the three ways that Kant will criticize these discipline and ideas—the Paralogisms, the Antinomy and the Ideal. The details of Kant’s diagnosis of the particular illusions of reason, or those of his criticisms of them are again not as important as his identification that they happen, and that they, “are not arbitrarily invented, but given as problems by the nature of reason itself” (A327/B384). Thus the superior philosophy, as the champion of reason’s intellectual intuition, cannot help but fall prey to these illusory ideas.

 

V. THE SUPERIORITY OF THE SUN: PLATO’S EPEKEINA TES OUSIAS

 

In the essay on the superior tone, Kant also returns to Plato and the Idea of the sun as the Form of the Good in Book 6 of The Republic. For Plato, it is the Form of the Good, which is given to humans directly through intellectual intuition, that allows all things to be known, through the comparison of the objects of the world with that Form, which grants knowledge and truth to the Forms of everyday objects. Plato uses the metaphor of the sun, its light and sight to examine the relationship between the Form of the Good and knowledge. However, this metaphor extends deeper than merely the equation of illumination with knowledge. For just as the sun not only provides the light through which things are seen but is itself also the source of the coming-to-be of all those things of the Earth that exist, including humans as knowers. Likewise, for Plato the Form of the Good is not only the means through which things are known, but also the cause of all other Forms as well. Plato writes: “not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the good, but their existence and being are also due to it”. Immediately after this important and central claim about the Form of the Good, he adds an important qualification: “although the good is not being, but something yet beyond being [epekeina tes ousias], superior to it in rank and power” (509b). It is because the Form of the Good—and, by extension of the metaphor, the sun—is ‘beyond being,’ or epekeina tes ousias in the Greek, that it cannot be known merely through the senses, it must and can only be known through reason, or dianoia, or intellectual intuition.

It is, however, the particularities of Plato, and especially the solar metaphor, that themselves reveal some of the weaknesses of this position. For, although Plato’s philosophy, in Kant’s description, precedes through “a divine understanding whose intuitions are direct and thus deserve to be called archetypes (Ideas)”, and thus undoubtedly fits into if not is the origin—Kant calls him its father—of superior philosophy, the fact that in practical terms Plato cannot actually find this direct intuition and instead“our intuition of these divine Ideas … are imparted to us only indirectly, as imitations (ectypa) – to use an image, as shadow images” (8: 391) exposes the fundamentally unbridgeable rift in this superior philosophy and returns and shows how the sun, the sun that is beyond being—epekeina tes ousias—even insofar as it illuminates or enlightens always also turns dark and blackens. Recognizing this reveals what Kant calls a “new mystical-Platonic language” which says “All philosophy of man can only sketch the dawn; the sun must be intimated” (8: 398-9). Just as the goddess could only be intimated beneath her veil so to can the sun only be assumed as a hypothesis and never actually revealed. For, as Kant states, “to look into the sun (the supersensibile) without becoming blind is impossible” (8: 399). Here is the contradiction at the heart of this superior philosophy, that to enable the authority of sensibility it must retreat into the supersensible, which itself destroys the authority of the sensible. The limits and limitations of the empiricist model of philosophy, including the dominance of rationalism operating in the empiricist metaphor, are thus exposed and dismissed by Kant.

The violence and blackening of the sun as the supersensible was not, however, entirely absent from Plato himself, for even in The Republic as he puts forward the allegory of the cave and the metaphor of the sun, he hints at an implicit violence that is contained in the story. At the start of Book 7 where Plato’s Socrates puts forward the allegory of the cave as a way to not only present the path of education, but also the perils that it presents; and here, in several ways, violence comes to merge with the sun. Socrates tells the story of a people trapped below the earth, in a cave where, bound to the wall, unable to turn their heads they can only see a progression of shadows, cast by an unseen light source, that play out upon the wall before them. The story follows a man who escapes and first sees the objects that cast the shadows that he had previously taken to be reality. Next, as Socrates recounts the story, and here the violence begins to multiply,

 

And if someone dragged him by force away from there, along the rough, steep, upward path, and did not let him go until he had dragged him into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he be pained and angry at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes filled with sunlight and be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be truly real? (515e-516a).

 

This painful process is that of education, of progression towards the truth as it is given and illuminated by the sun. Eventually, after some time above the surface,

 

he would be able to see the sun—not reflections of it in water or some alien place, but the sun just by itself in its own place—and be able to look at it and see what it is like (516b).

 

It is here that Plato’s intended similitude between the Form of the Good and the sun begins to break down and the power of the sun works backwards against the strength of the metaphor. For to gaze directly on the sun is in fact to destroy vision, to burn out the retina and descend into the permanent blackness of blindness. The pain that Plato first identified with the initial emergence into the sun turns out to be the end point of that emergence as well.

 

Nigredo Hand I, 2015

Nigredo Hand I, 2015

 

VI. THE LOVE OF THE NIGHT: BATAILLE’S BLACK SUN

 

This brings out an asymmetry that exists in Plato’s epistemology that plays among the levels of the metaphor and operates in the difference between the empirical operation of sight, light and sun and the purely rational knowledge of the forms. For while it is supposedly sight that allows the escapee from the cave to gaze directly at the sun it is in fact rather only through rational construction that the sun may emerge as a supposed object at the source of the blindness created by gazing upon it directly. It is precisely this asymmetry that Georges Bataille points out in the essay Rotten Sun, when he writes:

 

The sun, from the human point of views (in other words, as it is confused with the notion of noon) is the most elevated conception. It is also the most abstract object, since it is impossible to look at it fixedly at that time of day. If we describe the notion of the sun in the mind of one whose weak eyes compel him to emasculate it, that sun must be said to have the poetic meaning of mathematical serenity and spiritual elevation. (57)

 

Here is the dark side of the Platonic myth of the sun, where sight breaks down into abstraction and the weakness of the eyes transforms light into mathematical dianoia, which itself eliminates perception and subjugates it to reason. While at the same time elevating the sun beyond the domain of the sensible—epekeina tes ousias—and into a spiritual and abstract realm. For Bataille, this exposes a contradiction that seems problematic for Plato. Whereas the poets and artists were banished from the Republic, run by philosophers endowed with mathematical reason and thus able to gaze directly upon the sun, Bataille notes that the abstract nature of the blinding sun shows that “in the final analysis the sun is the sole object of literary description” (2: 140). These contradictions expose for Bataille the dark double of the Platonic sun, “a black sun” (4: 15) or the solar anus, the “filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun” that “exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, towards the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray” (The Solar Anus. Bataille, 1985. 9). The sun as it has been construed philosophically—as the source and means of all life, good, knowledge and beauty, but always achingly beyond reach and beyond being—exposes through the violence of its own blinding agony its own rottenness and darkness, its own-most blackness.

This blackening of the sun, of epekeina tes ousias, of intellectual intuition and reason through the necessity of its very inner nature, is the single most important image that Zurücknehmen takes from Doktor Faustus via Adorno, Kant, Plato and Bataille. However, it was one that was there directly from the start in the very text of Mann’s novel. In Leverkühn’s musical vision of the Apocalypse, figured through the engravings of Albrecht Dürer, he evokes the opening of “the seventh seal, when the sun became black and the moon became as blood and the ships are overturned” (375, it could be noted that in his famous metaphor of the ‘island of truth’ in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant presents the navigation of reason as the navigation of the sea beyond the boundary of the island of justified cognition, Leverkühn’s ‘overturning of ships’ is perhaps the way in which speculative reason also always overturns itself). In a less metaphorical language, Mann quotes Terence and gives the image of “behave[ing] stupidly with reason” (67); and Leverkühn directly equates “Reason and magic, [which] may meet and become one in that which one calls wisdom, initiation; in belief in the stars, in numbers…” (194). In an echo of Kant’s deeply skeptical Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics, Zeitblom describes how the influence of the child Nepomuk, “lulled the reason in dreams beyond the claims of logic” (467). Finally, in the ‘vision’ or ‘invention’ of his trip to the bottom of the ocean that he recounts to Zeitblom under the anti-humanist influence of hard science in his composition of the Marvels of the Universe, Leverkühn describes “the blackness of interstellar space whither for eternities no weakest sun-ray had penetrated” (268); and then in describing the place of Earth in the vastness of such interstellar space a few pages later, Zeitblom recounts the “vastness and in whose spaces, mostly empty spaces, the given objects were so distributed that the whole structure formed a ball. Somewhere deep within this absurdly sparsely settled ball, belonging, in a very minor category, scarcely worth a mention and not even easy to find, to the disk or condensed swarm of worlds, was the fixed star about which, along with its greater and smaller companions, sported to earth and its little moon. ‘The Sun’—a body little deserving of the definite article…” (270).[2] There is a certain amount of anti-humanism in Leverkühn’s cold-blooded intellectualism. His denial of the humanistic impulse is part of his taking back of ‘the good and the noble,’ but this occurs in the way that the good and the noble themselves resist their own goodness and nobleness, they are expressed with the ‘storming of citadels,’ which inevitably involves brutally crushing underfoot the inhabitants of those citadels in the very name of the noble. Here is the ‘double barbarism’ that the Devil ascribes to Leverkühn, a necessary double that appears out of the hidden barbarism at the heart of culture, the blackness that blinds through the very operation of reason. In embracing the darkness Leverkühn can claim to dispel some of the myths of reason as ‘good and noble.’ This is his ‘taking back,’ a plunge into the darkness, and into the melancholy, that underlies and grows out of the affirmations of reason and culture.

 

VII. THE INTERSTELLAR VOID AND THE KANTIAN SUBLIME

 

Leverkühn’s dalliance with science that influences his composition of the Marvels of the Universe, expresses this anti-humanism. Zeitblom recalls how “Adrian did fling himself into the immense, which astro-physical science seeks to measure, only to arrive at measures, figures, orders of greatness with which the human spirit has no longer any relation, and which lose themselves in the theoretic and abstract, in the entirely non-sensory, not to say non-sensical” (266). The alienating image of the vastness of the cosmos, which resists any relation to the human and flees into abstraction, recalls the ‘wind from another planet’ that ushered in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone revolution of music; but it also conjures Kant’s evocation of “the starry heavens above,” which in the words of the Critique of Practical Reason, “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence” (5: 161, see also the Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5: 270 for Kant’s reference to the “starry heavens” as sublime). Kant ‘starry heavens’ and the reverence that they fill him with, return to the issue of the sublime, which first appeared with the image of the veil of Isis; and the sublime, for Kant, is a point at which the negotiation of reason and its blackening develops. Leverkühn’s flinging of himself into the immense is an indubitable reference to the Kantian sublime. The connection becomes obvious a few pages later, where Zeitblom speculates:

 

No, it [the cosmos] was not immeasurable, but it was in this way that it was to be measured. What is one to say about such an assault upon the human understanding? I confess to being so made that nothing but a resigned if also somewhat contemptuous shoulder-shrug remains to me in the face of such ungraspable, such stunning statistics. Enthusiasm for size, being overwhelmed by size—that is no doubt a mental please; but it is only possible in connections which a human being can grasp. The Pyramids are large, Mont Blanc and the inside of the dome of St. Peter’s are large, unless one prefer to reserve this attribute of largeness to the mental and moral world, the nobility of the heart and of thought. The data of the cosmic creation are nothing but a deafening bombardment of our intelligence with figures furnished with a comet’s tail of a couple of dozen ciphers, and comporting themselves as thought they still had something, anything, to do with measurement and understanding. There is in all this monstrousness nothing that could appeal to the likes of me as goodness, beauty, greatness (271).

 

Here the blackening—the ‘taking back’—of the good and beauty and greatness are all made clear, but what is not necessarily immediately obvious is that this passage is also a comment on the Kantian sublime. Two of the examples that Zeitblom provides to describe how humans can be ‘overwhelmed’ by size are the same as Kant gives in §26 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment when he examines the sublime in terms of magnitude through the category of quantity: the Pyramids and St. Peter’s Basilica.

For Kant, the sublime is that which, like reason, surpasses what can be contained in any sensible form, as Kant puts it, “the mind is incited to abandon sensibility and to occupy itself with ideas that contains a higher purpose” (5: 246). In the case of the issue of magnitude and measurability, this occurs when “apprehension has gone so far that the partial representations of the intuition of the senses that were apprehended first already begin to fade in the imagination as the latter proceeds on to the apprehension of further ones, then it loses on one side as much as it gains on the other, and there is in the comprehension a greatest point beyond which it cannot go” (5: 252). It is at this point that Kant points to the examples of the pyramids and St. Peter’s in Rome, both of which are so large that they cannot be comprehended in their entirety all at once by simple sensibility, and thus produce, “a feeling of the inadequacy of [the] imagination for presenting the ideas of a whole, in which the imagination reaches its maximum and, in the effort to extend it, sinks back into itself, but is thereby transformed into an emotionally moving satisfaction” (5: 252). It is this feeling that is important for Kant, not so much in the details of what is felt, although it should be noted that the pleasure of this feeling is always mixed with a certain horror or fear, but the fact the feeling takes place, and that this feeling is the mind ‘sinking’ back into itself, it is feeling nothing other than itself, it is auto-affection.

The auto-affection of the feeling of the sublime plays a very important role for Kant, one that is in a sense opposed to the limitations placed on the mind in the Dialectic of the first Critique, but as such intimately tied up with the problems presented there. In the third Critique, in the consideration of the sublime in magnitude, Kant proclaims that it is at this point, in the feeling of the sublime, that “the mind hears in itself the voice of reason” (5: 254, the same phrase, the “voice of reason” that ‘stirs’ “inner experience as well as feeling” is also referred to in the Superior Tone essay (8: 401)). This is almost a story of the origin of the faculty of reason and the ability of abstraction, and the starting point from which all the problematic developments of rationalism and superior philosophy will depart. As such, the issue of the sublime and the auto-affection that provokes the voice of reason, must be closely tied up with the issue of the supersensible; and indeed this is the path that Kant follows, not simply back along the mistaken path of superiority and intellectual intuition, but in a careful negotiation of the potentials and possibilities of this critical rationality.

The mind hears the voice of reason within itself, that is the auto-affection produced as the imagination sinks back into itself; but this occurs because comprehension must ascribe a unity to something that exceeds apprehension, it must think a finitude or unity for something that is presented as infinite. This recalls how the ideas of reason attempted to subsume an unconditioned with the unity of a chain of conditioned conditions. As with the ideas of reason, the given infinite spoken by the voice of reason relates to the supersensible. Kant writes, “But even to be able to think the given infinite without contradiction requires a faculty in the human mind that is itself supersensible. For it is only by means of this and its idea of noumenon, which itself admits no intuition though it is presupposed as the substratum of the intuition of the world as mere appearance” (5: 254-5). It is the idea of the noumenon that is now considered as supersensible, Kant expands a page later: “the imagination fruitlessly expends its entire capacity for comprehension[which] must lead the concept of nature to a supersensible substratum (which grounds both it and at the same time our faculty for thinking), which is great beyond any standard of sense and hence allows not so much the object as rather the disposition of the mind in estimating it to be judged sublime” (5: 255-6). The sublime presents another path to the supersensible, one that is both the origin and the negotiation of the problem of transcendental illusion and the regulative ideas of pure reason. However, this supersensible is not one that pretends to be or act like an object of the senses, instead it is something that slips into the gap presented by the breakdown of those senses themselves. It is only the idea of a noumenon, and a feeling of self-affection that leads to rational abstraction. The sublime reveals the double of the twice barbarism of reason, the dark but positive counterpart to the illusions of reason, which always present themselves in their goodness and beauty, and in their superior mysticism. Kant recognizes this superiority that is tied up with the sublime, he notes how there is “found in our own mind a superiority over nature itself even in its immeasurability” (5: 261). However, in noting this superiority Kant also pulls is back down from its elevated position and begins to question and critique it.

The third Critique oscillates in its attempts to get beyond the limitations of the faculties, to find a way through the imagination itself, through the sublime, to approach the noumenon and get to reality, and yet at the same time the blackening of reason, the black sun counterpart to the beautiful and the good, is never far away and always interrupts and through those ruptures imposes limits. But this blackening itself is important, because it, like transcendental illusion, is necessary and unavoidable. With the feeling of the sublime, the real object of experience slips away and in its place is put the black sun of the idea of the noumenon, the always-veiled goddess. The superior philosopher, in a state of enthusiasm, takes this to be the real itself and has the audacity and arrogance to attempt to remove the veil, or at least intimate the goddess beneath it. Kant shows that beneath this veil is only the blackness of the unpresentable real, which is in a sense not the real that has been abandoned with the movement beyond the transcendental reality of representation produced by the senses. This is why the enlargement of reason, via the imagination and its abstractions, produced by the sublime “is an abyss” (5: 265). An abyss that leads back to the ‘empty spaces’ and the void of interstellar space, and back to Adrian Leverkühn, his ‘taking back,’ and to the practice of Zurücknehmen.

 

VIII. THE ABYSS OF BLACKENING: THE GRID, EMPTY SPACE AND MODERN ART

 

Grids I, 2015

Grids I, 2015

 

Empty space as an abstract space, or a space of abstraction is very important to this practice, as evidenced by the prominent use of the grid. This focus on space is, however, very much in line with the abyss of blackening, of the blackened sun that reason and the sublime lead to. In a 1979 essay, simply titled ‘Grids,’ Roaslind Krauss analyzes the prevalence of the grid in modern art as part of its, art’s, “will to silence” (50). Which immediately evokes Zeitblom’s description of the Leverkühn’s final work The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus—the ‘Ode to Sorrow’ that will ‘take back’ the Ninth—where,

 

It would be but a hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair—not betrayal to her, but the miracle that passes belief. For listen to the end, listen with me: one group of instruments after another retires, and what remains, as the work fades on the air, is the high G of a cello, the last word, the last fainting sound, slowly dying in a pianissimo-fermata. The nothing more: silence and night. But that tone which vibrates in the silence, which is no longer there, to which only the spirit hearkens, and which was the voice of mourning, is no more. It changes its meaning; it abides as a light in the night (491).

 

The very end of Leverkühn’s final work, his ‘taking back,’ delves deep into the night, finds the voice of reason, that in its silencing is also a voice of mourning, that silently maintains the darkness of the light. Krauss’s silence is also an end, a final point for modern art. She writes how,

 

the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface. In the overall regularity of its organization, it is the result not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree. Insofar as its order is that of pure relationship, the grid is a way of abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to themselves; the relationships in the aesthetic field are shown by the grid to be in a world apart and, with respect to natural objects, to be both prior and final. The grid declares the space of art to be at once autonomous and autotelic (50-2).

 

There are lots of points here, and lots more in Krauss’s short and problematic essay; but initially, there is evident another parallel with Leverkühn’s (and Schoenberg’s) twelve-tone system. Krauss explicitly states here that the grid is an order of pure relationality, this recalls Leverkühn’s characterization of his musical system where “Every note … would have to show its relation to this fixed fundamental series” (191). The twelve-tone composition is also one of pure relationality, or in more Kantian terms, of conditions and conditioneds, and yet it is also one which presents a totality, which the grid in that is can seemingly be extended to infinity is not. Similarly, the grid, like the ‘strict style’ of the twelve-tone composition is autonomous and anti-natural; just as twelve-tone composition turns its back on the ‘naturalness’ of harmony, so to does the grid eschew the messy randomness of nature in favor of the regulations of pure, abstract and empty spatiality.

Krauss does, however, present the grid as having a sort of totality defined or delineated by the regularity of its internal relations. Indeed, this totality is so strong that she can define the grid in modern art as a “staircase to the Universal” (52)—definite article, capital letter, ‘the Universal,’ singular and total. For her this is an aspect of abstraction, she continues, that artists working with grids (in this case Malevich and Mondrian), “are not interested in what happens below in the Concrete” (52). As something that is a product of abstraction, and as ‘antinatural’ and ‘antireal,’ the grid functions through many of the same processes as the voice of reason, provoked by the sublime, that Kant discusses in the third Critique. Just as the sublime surpasses all sensibility as the imagination sinks back into itself and must resort to the abstractions of reason until it finally reaches for the supersensible substratum of the noumenon, the grid also reaches out in abstraction towards an absolute (an unconditioned), that is perhaps in the final or untimate instance the Absolute, the absolute homogeneity of empty space. The question of absolute space, and of spatiality in general, is one that plays an important role in Kant’s thought. Before investigating this point, however, there is more to be drawn out of the connection between abstraction in art and the role of the sublime in Kant that this confrontation between Krauss on the grid, Kant on the sublime and Doktor Faustus conjures.

Jean-François Lyotard examines the artistic, or aesthetic, consequences for the abstraction of the Kantian sublime in an essay deceptively titled ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’ Lyotard begins this essay with a critique of realism in an artistic sense, he writes that, “Realism, whose only definition is that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art, always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch” (75). In its reduction of the very question of reality, realism comes to function as a sort of fascism, which imposes a ‘correct’ image or narrative and reduces taste to the merely ‘agreeable’ or ‘good’ of kitsch (75-6). As a critique of the ‘good’ by associating it with kitsch, this once again recalls the discomfort and Strindbergian ‘ugliness’ of twelve-tone composition and Leverkühn’s ‘taking back’ of the good; but the explicit connection between the good and kitsch and realism and fascism that Lyotard makes is in fact also made in Doktor Faustus.

Recalling a discussion that took place during the years of the rise of fascism in Germany, Zeitblom describes a literary historian, “who has written a much esteemed history of German literature from the point of view of racial origins, wherein an author is discussed and evaluated not as a writer and comprehensively trained mind, but as a genuine blood-and-soil product of his real, concrete, specific corner of the Reich, engendering him and by him engendered” (363). This description takes place as part of a longer recollection where Zeitblom describes and decries the thinking that was part of the rise of fascism in Germany. In language similar to that which Adorno and Horkheimer use, he recalls how “popular myths or rather those proper for the masses would become the vehicle of political action; fables, insane visions, chimeras, which need have nothing to do with truth or reason” (366). And, in recalling how the idea of force came to be considered as the determiner of all things, he writes, “Oh, yes, force created a firm ground under the feet; it was anti-abstract,” which to him brought to mind a story of Swift’s where people, in an ultimate act of realism, “do away altogether with words and speech and … converse by pointing to the things themselves” (369). Realism has a tendency towards superiority and fascism precisely because it is a way of shutting down any questioning concerning the things presented as ‘real.’ In this way it is similar to the superior philosopher, who shut down any criticism by appealing to the directness of the intuition of its objects. Indeed, Kant used exactly the same formulation of the ‘things themselves’ (as objects of intellectual intuition and thus quite different from Husserl’s phenomenological valorization of the ‘things themselves’) to characterize the hubris of the superior philosopher.

Against this fascism of the real Lyotard puts forward what he defines as specifically modern art. He notes how, “Modernity, in whatever age it appears, cannot exist without a shattering of belief and without discovery of the ‘lack of reality’ of reality, together with the invention of other realities” (77). Once again, Schoenberg’s ‘wind from another planet’ begins to blow, bringing with it such ‘other realities.’ The way that Lyotard explores this dictum of modern art is through the theme of the Kantian sublime. The sublime confronts the issue of both other realities and the very question of reality through its emphasis on the unrepresentable, such as the inability of apprehension to represent the magnitude of the Pyramids (or the vastness of outer space). Lyotard discusses how, “Kant himself shows the way when he names ‘formlessness, the absence of form,’ as a possible index to the unrepresentable. He also says of the empty ‘abstraction’ which the imagination experiences when in search for a presentation of the infinite (another unrepresentable): the abstraction itself is like a presentation of the infinite in its ‘negative presentation’” (78). Following these observations, Lyotard is able to declare that “modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime” (81), which returns back to Krauss’s identification of the grid as both the most abstract and the most modern manifestation of modernism. Lyotard’s identification of the Kantian sublime as formless or formlessness (Kant himself uses this description at 5:247), also returns to Bataille, who in a short encyclopedia entry he wrote of ‘formless’ [l’informe] notes how “for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what it, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit” (31). The philosophy of the frock coat that Bataille refers to is, of course, superior philosophy, which proceeds according to the dianoia of the mathematical method, but which also only ever reveals the black sun and thus lapses into the formlessness of the sublime.

L'Informe, 2015

L'Informe, 2015

The grid, however, which renounces imitation and realism and embraces abstraction, would seem to be the antithesis of formlessness, it is the strictest mathematical frock coat possible. But as with the black sun and the darkness of the interstellar abyss, the grid as an abstraction that aches for absolute empty homogenous space also disrupts itself and becomes sublime rather than illusory. In part, this comes back to Kant’s treatment of space and its place within his system. Space played a key role in the development of Kant’s thought, as it was in a short essay from 1768 titled Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space that Kant first turned inwards towards an investigation of the transcendental conditions of experience as opposed to either the dogmatism of reason or the anarchy of skepticism. In this essay Kant attempts to disprove Leibniz’s relational theory of space and affirm Newton’s absolute theory: “to see whether there is not to be found in intuitive judgments about extension, such as to be found in geometry, clear proof that: Absolute space, independent of the existence of all matter and as itself the ultimate foundation of the possibility of the compound character of matter, has a reality of its own” (2: 378). He does this by showing that space intrinsically has the feature of directionality, which cannot be accounted for by relations alone. This can be seen in the difference between incongruent counterparts, such as the left and right hands, where the spatial relations—distance, angle, etc.—between the different elements of each counterpart are the same, but each counterpart is different on account of being oriented either to the left or the right. Kant says that this difference of direction is accounted for by “the distinct feeling of the left and the right side” (2: 380). This insight into the necessity of an ‘inner feeling’ to determine the experience of space is a crucial turning point in Kant’s development of his transcendental philosophy, which is built around the importance of the ‘inner’ a priori conditions of experience, the original example of which is directional spatiality in this early pre-Critical essay.

Just as Kant disproves Leibniz’s theory of relational space by turning inwards towards an ‘inner’ transcendental condition, Kant also seems to run into difficulty in his intended proof of Newtonian absolute space. For now, it must be that what was supposed to be external and absolute is now determined by something inner and subjective. The debate between relative and absolute space reappears, with an important twist, at the end of Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. In this work, Kant is attempting to show how the natural sciences, organized and defined by universal gravitation and Newtonian science, are grounded on and indeed made possible by the metaphysics laid out in the Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, to explain all motion in terms of universal gravitation it is necessary to assume the concept of absolute space (as Newton did). But in examining the universe all motions can only ever be seen as relative and conditioned by all other movements relative to them. Following this thought, Kant asserts that “one must think space in which the latter [relative space] can itself be thought as moved, but which depends for its determination on no further empirical space, and thus is not conditioned in turn—that is, an absolute space to which all relative motions can be referred, in which everything empirical is moveable” (4: 559). As an unconditioned that determines all conditions and everything conditioned, this recalls both the movement of abstraction in the face of the sublime and also the nature of transcendental illusion and the ideas of reason. Kant is aware of this, he notes that “Absolute space is therefore necessary, not as a concept of an actual object, but rather as an idea” (4: 560). And again a few pages later, as he begins to draw conclusions from this:

 

To the various concepts of motion and moving force there also correspond the various concepts of empty space. Empty space in the phoronomical sense, which is also called absolute space, should not properly be called an empty space; for it is only the idea of a space, in which I abstract from all particular matter that makes it an object of experience, in order to think therein the material space (4: 563).

 

‘Empty space’ in this sense is very similar to the movement of the sublime. It is an abstraction away from all empirical sensible experience, but in doing so it also opens up a space where experience can be considered, in this case, that space is literally space itself. The empty space of space opened by abstraction is also, bringing back the insights from the third Critique and the sublime, where the supersensible substratum of the noumenon is placed. Indeed, in several places Kant equates the noumenon with empty space; in the Prolegomena he elliptically writes of “empty space (of which we can know nothing – the noumena)” contrasting it with “the contiguity of the filled space (of experience)” (4: 354). Similarly, right at the end of the chapter on the distinction between phenomena and noumena in the first Critique, he notes that, “Thus the concept of pure, merely intelligible objects is devoid of all principles of its application, since one cannot think up [ersinnen—literally, make sensible] any way in which they could be given, and the problematic thought, which leaves a place open for them, only serves, like and empty space, to limit the empirical principles without containing and displaying any other object of cognition beyond the sphere of the latter” (A259-60/B315). ‘Empty space,’ absolute space, thus has attributes both of an illusory idea of reason, and also, rather more explicitly, of the elusive supersensible substratum of the noumenon. Kant is aware of the contradictions that this seems to involve, back in the Metaphysical Foundations he concludes that the “refutation of empty space proceeds entirely hypothetically, for the assertion of empty space fares no better” (4: 564), thus creating a dialectic of empty space, which was not addressed in the Dialectic of the first Critique. He continues: “It is easy to see that the possibility or impossibility of this does not rest on metaphysical grounds, but on the mystery of nature, difficult to unravel, as to how matter sets limits to its own expansive force” (4: 564). In conclusion, Kant connects this limiting idea back to a limitation of knowledge itself, the very last paragraph of the book, in an echo of the earlier-quoted Preface to the first Critique, reads:

 

And so ends the metaphysical doctrine of the body with the empty, and therefore the inconceivable, wherein it shares the same fate as all other attempts of reason, when it strives after the first grounds of things in a retreat to principles—where, since its very nature entails that it can never conceive anything, except insofar as it is determined under given conditions, and since it can therefore neither come to a halt at the conditioned, nor make the unconditioned comprehensible, nothing is left to it, when thirst for knowledge invites it to comprehend the absolute totality of all conditions, but to turn away from the objects to itself, so as to explore and determine, not the ultimate limits of things, but rather the ultimate limits of its own unaided powers (4: 564-5).

 

The empty, then, is the inconceivable, just as the sublime is the unrepresentable, it is an abstraction away from things in search of the unconditioned, which always must run into contradiction and thus into its own limits. In other words, the sun it seeks always turns black. This is the space that the use of the grid in the work of Zurücknehmen is investigating: The empty blackness of absolute space as the sublime transformation of things into empty abstractions. The external abiding framework that always invades and disrupts the subject with its ecstatic exteriority as a determination of experience. The outer that opens up all interiority, making it both possible and impossible; the inner that reaches outside beyond itself with ever abandoning the inwardness of its own conditions…

Absolute space is not the simple stairway to the universal that Krauss affirms the grid to be. Rather, in a system where such an aim of reason is suspect and often illusory, it is something more cautious and more suspect. Admittedly, Krauss touches on something similar about the grid, albeit from a completely different, yet not unfamiliar to this essay, angle. She observes that the rationality of the gird is part of a movement to sever any mystical or spiritual impulse from art, and yet at the same time,

 

In the cultist space of modern art, the grid serves not only as emblem but also as myth. For like all myths, it deals with paradox or contradiction not by dissolving the paradox or resolving the contradiction, but by covering them over so that they seem (but only seem) to go away. The grid's mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction) (54).

 

The grid, on this reading, is the myth of modern art, a myth that is based on the occlusion of the role of the mythical in that art. This intertwining of myth and reason, once again recalls Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of the ‘dialectic of enlightenment,’ with its dual articulation of reason and mythology.

 

IX. THE MELANCHOLOY OF METAPHYSICS: DÜRER’S MAGIC SQUARE

 

 

 

This mysticism of the grid, alongside the blackening of the emptiness of space, returns once again to Doktor Faustus and a grid that appears there, and which also returns to one of the central elements of Leverkühn’s lament and injunction to ‘take it back,’ namely, to melancholy. The connection in question here is the repeated reference to the ‘magic square’ that appears in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melancolia I, which is closely associated with Leverkühn and his twelve-tone system. This first appears in Chapter XII, where in describing Levekühn’s student flat in Halle, Zeitblom recalls how,

 

On the wall above the piano was an arithmetical diagram fastened with drawing pins, something he [Leverkühn] had found in a second-hand shop: a so-called magic square, such as appears also in Dürer’s Melancolia, along with the hour-glass, the circle, the scale, the polyhedron, and other symbols.

 

Zeitblom goes on the describe the magic square, and his description will surfice to account for it here also,

 

Here as there, the figure was divided into sixteen Arabic-numbered fields, in such a way that number one was in the right-hand lower corner, sixteen in the upper left; and the magic, or the oddity, simply consisted in the fact that the sum of these numerals, however you added them, straight down, crosswise, or diagonally, always came to thirty-four (92).

 

It is noted that Leverkühn keeps this image with him as he moves to Leipzig (179), but this geometric grid with its numerological magic plays a much more important role than mere ornamentation. In a way its internal consistency and autonomous relations stands in for the twelve-tone system itself. Indeed, in the crucial Chapter XXII, where Leverkühn outlines his invention off the twelve-tone method, on hearing this description Zeitblom comments, almost as an aside: “A magic square” (192); in the vital Chapter concerning the deal that Leverkühn makes with the devil, which is recounted in his own voice, upon the Devil’s evocation of the draining hourglass, Leverkühn exclaims: “Extraordinarily Dürerish. You love it. First ‘how I will shiver with after the sun’; and then the houre-glasse of the Melancolia. Is the magic square coming too?” (227); and finally, right at he end of the novel, as Zeitblom reflects upon the tragic life and legacy of his friend, he recalls that first explication of the system and again evokes how his friend “showed me the ‘magic square’ of a style of technique,” and he goes on to reflect on how this square connects up with the strict style of the twelve-tone system, “in which there is no longer anything unthematic, anything that could not prove itself to be a variation of an ever constant element. This style, this technique, he said, admitted no note, not one, which did not fulfill its thematic function in the whole structure—there was no longer and free note” (486). This description repeats the words that Leverkühn himself used in his initial setting out of the twelve tone system in Chapter XXII—where every note “fulfill[s] its thematic function in the whole structure” and there ‘would be’ (in the earlier speculative version) or ‘was’ (in the later retrospective summary) “no longer any free note” (191). The magic square similarly does not allow any free element, each number must be perfectly, and strictly, determined by the relations it has to all of the other numbers. Such strictness, however, is not a negation of freedom but rather a negotiation between subjectivity and objectivity in such a way to attempt to assert the autonomy of the artwork.

Leverkühn and Zeitblom discuss this very issue in Chapter XXII. Leverkühn sets out this negotiation as such:

 

But freedom is of course another word for subjectivity, and some fine days she does not hold any longer, some time or other she despairs of the possibility of being creative out of herself and seeks shelter and security in the objective. Freedom always inclines to dialectic reversals. She realizes herself very soon in constraint, fulfills herself in the subordination to law, rule, coercion, system – but to fulfill herself therein does not mean she therefore ceases to be freedom (190).

 

This negotiation between freedom, subjectivity, objectivity and the possibility of un-freedom cuts both ways. One the one hand, Leverkühn is criticizing how the supposedly subjective or arbitrary musical (and by extension artistic) techniques or styles become conventions and then dogmatic rules and assume an ‘objective’ status and thus a certain amount of un-freedom. Leverkühn’s strict style is an overthrowing of this assumed freedom of subjective creativity that in fact hides a stronger coercion or dogmatism. In overthrowing this he commences from a re-negotiation of objectivity and freedom in terms of autonomy, where the self-ascribed rule of the strict style is internal to the artwork itself, not the mere subjectivity of its creator. Such strictness, arising from the autonomy of the artwork, and autonomy founded in the unity of its internal rationality between the uses of the twelve chromatic notes (or the positioning of the numbers in the magic square) overturns the possibility of attempting to found a ‘freedom’ in the arbitrary acts of the artist. As Leverkühn puts it (incidentally, not long after Zeitblom’s evocation of the magic square): “Bound by self-imposed compulsion to order, hence free” (193). This definition of the internal logic of the twelve-tone system could also serve as a definition of the Kantian idea of autonomy. Autonomy, as the ‘moral law within’ that he pairs alongside the already-mentioned ‘starry heavens above’ at the end of the second Critique, is at the heart of Kant’s moral philosophy, and by extension his system of Critical rationality and the (now-bounded) possibilities of inward subjectivity and objectivity. Kant will return in the investigation of melancholy and genius that swirls around Doktor Faustus, but this return will come out of a further investigation of the source of the magic square, Dürer’s engraving Melancolia I.

Dürer’s engraving serves as an image of Doktor Faustus not only in the detail of the magic square which is so prominent in the text, but also as the melancholic disposition hangs heavy over Leverkühn, the times and the novel as a whole. Leverkühn is continually described as melancholy; as “Mute, veiled, musing, aloof to the point of offensiveness, full of chilling melancholy” (163), or with “a grain of hopelessness, a drop of melancholy” (218), and the Devil describes how “ the pendulum swings very wide to and fro between high spirits and melancholia … into void and desolation and unfruitful melancholy” (230), and finally in the ‘taking back’ passage, where Zeitblom describes the Lamentation of Doctor Faustus, Leverkühn’s masterpiece, as a “counterpart in a most melancholy sense of the word” to Beethoven’s Ninth, the ‘Ode to Sorrow’ that epitomizes the es soll nicht sein, it shall not be, at the heart of Leverkühn’s character, Mann’s novel and the work of art of Zurücknehmen. Dürer’s picture contains within not just the image of the twelve-tone system, but also the depiction of melancholy itself and thus encompasses and entwines the two together. It also has a rich set of interpretations, which opens up a new range of thoughts concerning art, culture and Doktor Faustus.

Walter Benjamin, who has already been encountered in these notes, discusses Melancolia I in his book The Origin of the German Tragic Drama [Trauerspiel, literally mourning play]. There he explicitly mentions the magic square, he writes, “The magic square, which is inscribed on the tablet at the head of Dürer’s Melancolia, is the planetary sign of Jupiter, whose influence counteracts the dismal force of Saturn” (151). The square, then, is a sort of treatment against Saturn, the influence of whom, as Benjamin noted a few pages earlier, “could rule over the melancholy disposition” (148), producing a “most decisive correspondence between melancholy as Saturn” (149). This insight is not Benjamin’s alone; he refers to Panofsky and Saxl’s extensive study Saturn and Melancholy, devoted entirely to this conjunction, which includes a long section on Dürer and an analysis of the various figures and images in the engraving in question. He also references Aby Warburg and his lengthy essay ‘Pagan –Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther’, which addresses the question of Luther’s horoscope, the general astronomical fear of the influence of Saturn and another analysis of the imagery of Melancolia I. Warburg also argues that the magic square is a sign of Jupiter, which supposedly mitigates the influence of Saturn. Indeed, such mitigation is the aim of much of the paraphernalia scattered about in the engraving: the compass and scale, the garland of herbs atop the figure’s head, and also the curious polyhedron (technically a truncated triangular trapezohedron) in the background.[3] Panofsky and Saxl examine these images and meanings in depth, but Warburg is more interested in making a direct connection between melancholy and genius, and the attempt to avert disaster (whether natural, mystical or apocalyptic) through the power of contemplation, and Benjamin follows closely in this connection. There are two things here that are important for the analysis of Doktor Faustus and the practice of Zurücknehmen. The first is the astrological significance of the influence of Saturn, which will return to the connection made between myth and reason earlier, and in turn to the numerological superstitions of Schoenberg and the alchemical mode of investigation into materials and eventually into the demonology of the Faust myth. The second is the connection between melancholy and genius and art, which will come back to Kant, autonomy and art.

The connection between melancholy and Saturn is important not only because of the intricacies of astrology, but for the significance of astrology in general. As he recounts the classical theory of melancholy as a result of an imbalance in the humours and an abundance of black bile (145), Benjamin recalls “the other Hellenistic science which nourished the doctrine of the melancholic: astrology” (148). Benjamin is building on the insights of Panofsky and Saxl, and their identification of the relation between Saturn and melancholy in general and Dürer in particular, and also the work of Warburg in connecting Dürer’s engraving, and its symbolism, to the shift or the reformation and the sub-plot concerning Luther’s break from the fated life of astrology and the controversy concerning his birthdate and the consequences for the outcome of his horoscope. Benjamin, however, reverses this connection, after recounting Warburg’s observation that the magic square of Jupiter counteracts the forces of Saturn, he points to the balance next to the square and asserts that “Under the influence of Jupiter the harmful inspirations are transformed into beneficial ones, Saturn becomes the protector of the most sublime investigations; astrology itself is under his sway” (151). What is of interest here is not so much the specifics or details of the astrological system, but the fact that it is itself a system of knowledge and symbols that precipitates the so-called rational system of science. Alchemy is another such ‘mystical’ system that developed much of the symbolic language and meticulous method that became that of science. There is also much cross over between the two systems, such as the connection between the influence of heavenly bodies and earthly elements (Saturn, and its melancholic influence, is connected to lead and both are represented by the symbol ♄).[4]

Bringing together the mystical arts of astrology and alchemy, and the enlightened science of reason recalls the thesis of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, that reason has its origin in myth and thus is capable of regression back into myth and mysticism just as much as myth can move into enlightened reason.[5] However, there is also an echo of all of these ideas in Chapter XXII of Doktor Faustus, there, as Leverkühn sets out the ‘rational’ system of his strict style he speaks of “the ever repeated demand to take hold and make order, and to resolve the magic essence of music into human reason.” Zeitblom counters: “Human reason! And besides, excuse me; ‘constellation’ is your every other word. [Leverkühn has just previously referred to how the “polyphonic dignity of every chord-forming note would be guaranteed by the constellation”]. But surely it belongs more to astrology. The rationalism you call for has a good deal of superstition about it – of belief in the incomprehensibility and vaguely daemonic, the kind of thing we have in games of chance, fortune-telling with card, and shaking dice. Contrary to what you say, your system seems to me more calculated to dissolve human reason in magic.” To this Leverkühn, suffering from an oncoming migraine can only respond “Reason and magic … may meet and become one in that which one calls wisdom, initiation; in belief in the starts, in numbers…” (193-4). And, undoubtedly, with his Faustian deal with the Devil, Leverkühn embodies the ultimate daemonologist and thus also the dialectic of the blackening of reason.

The deal that Leverkühn makes with the Devil is one that guarantees his genius and creativity, but also his melancholy. In their conversation, the Devil mocks Leverkühn and asks, “Has the sun better fire than the kitchen? And sane and sound greatness! Whenever I hear of such I laugh! Do you believe in anything like an ingenium that has nothing to do with hell? Non datur! The artist is the brother of the criminal and the madman” (236). This is not the only time that Leverkühn is associated with the word genius, and even more so, not the only time that ingenium is evoked. Early on, Leverkühn’s childhood tutor enthusiastically endorses his student’s intelligence, “speaking indeed of ingenium” (33); Zeitblom speaks of a conflict in his friend “between the inhibitions and the productive urge of inborn genius” (152); in Chapter XXII, as Leverkühn expands on the autonomy and objectivity of his theory, he notes how “the subjective precipitates as objective and by genius is again awakened to spontaneity” (190); and in the account of the deal, the Devil once again tells Leverkühn, apparently counteracting his earlier mockery, that, “From early on we had an eye on you, on your quick arrogant head, your mighty ingenium and memorium.” (247-8). The deal they eventually make guarantees Leverkühn’s genius, but on the condition that he may not love, and thus is condemned to constant melancholy, a condition expressed in his ‘taking back’ and the es soll nicht sein of his final symphony. But, the connection between melancholy and genius is found in the engraving of Dürer, by both Warburg and Benjamin, and thus taps into a deeper connection between contemplation and the influence of Saturn.

To Benjamin, the contemplative figure in Dürer’s etching is the “genius of winged melancholy” (158), and he also specifically cites Warburg and the “reinterpretation of saturnine melancholy as a theory of genius” (150). Warburg himself refers back to Giehlow, who in turn sees the magic square not only as a countermeasure against Saturn, but as an example of the genius of the melancholic individual (643). The thesis that Warburg himself puts forward continues from the insights examined above concerning the relation between myth and reason, and in this light genius is the mediation point of this transformation. He argues that,

 

The truly creative act – that which gives Dürer’s Melancolia I its consoling, humanistic message of liberation from the fear of Saturn – can be understood only if we recognize that the artist has taken a magical and mythical logic and made it spiritual and intellectual. The malignant, child-devouring planetary god, whose cosmic contest with another planetary ruler [Jupiter] seals the subject’s fate, is humanized and metamorphosed by Dürer into the image of the thinking, working human being (644).

 

If this was the transformation of Dürer’s time—the engraving is from 1514—then that of the present age is one of the transformation back away from intellectual reason, into rationalized mythology and the barbarism it facilitates, and of this time we can only say what Benjamin in the Trauerspiel book says of the Baroque, “ but in great men it produced melancholy” (138), but now a melancholy tinted with genius, just as genius always is melancholic.

The constellation at work here, which moves back and forth between genius and melancholy, and mysticism and reason as another case of the blackening of enlightenment, also returns to Kant, the Critique of the Power of Judgment, and the aesthetic ideas associated with the beautiful and the sublime. The key connection here is the place and function of genius in Kant’s system. Section 46 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment is titled ‘Beautiful art is art of genius’ and commences with the words: “Genius is the talent (natural gift) that gives the rule to art. Since the talent, as an inborn productive faculty of the artist, itself belongs to nature, this could be expressed thus: Genius is the inborn position of the mind (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art” (5: 307). Importantly, for the considerations of Dürer, Leverkühn and Zurücknehmen, Kant states that, “beautiful art is possible only as a product of genius” (5: 307). However, here some care is required, for Kant’s concept of the beautiful is one that is quite opposed to the mere agreeableness of comfort that Schoenberg and Leverkühn decry, instead it fills an important role in his system and in doing so meets up with some of the already-discussed attributes of the sublime.

Earlier in the Critique of the Power of Judgment Kant presented two ‘Analytics’ one, as already discussed, of the sublime, and the other, of the beautiful. The sublime presented that point where “the mind hears in itself the voice of reason” (5: 254) and is thus connected to the faculty of reason. The beautiful, in contrast, does not go so far, but is rather concerned with the “free play of the faculties of cognition with a representation through which an object is given must be able to be universally communicated” (5: 217) and thus with the connection between the faculty of sensibility (although in the third Critique sensibility is often addressed under the heading of ‘imagination’) and that of the understanding, and not yet reason. As he put it earlier, without the rhetoric of the ‘free play, “it can be nothing other than the state of the mind that is encountered in the relation of the powers of representation to each other insofar as they relate a given representation to cognition in general” (5: 217). The creativity and freedom of the beautiful is not an arbitrary freedom, it is one that is always tempered by the understanding and thus ordered by the categories, without yet the extension beyond its boundaries into the blackened field of the supersensible and illusion. As Kant explicitly states: “The mental powers, then, whose union (in a certain relation) constitutes genius, are imagination and understanding” (5: 316). But this limitation also contains a liberation, for as Kant continues, “in an aesthetic respect, however, the imagination is free to provide, beyond that concord with the concept [i.e., cognition], unsought extensive undeveloped material for the understanding” (5: 317). The outcome of this combination of limitation and liberation is something akin to the ‘strict style’ of Leverkühn, as Kant continues: “that requires a faculty for apprehending the rapidly passing play of the imagination and unifying it into a concept) which for that very reason is original and at the same time discloses a new rule, which could not have been deduced from any antecedent principles or examples), which can be communicated without the constrain of rules” (5: 317). Here is Kant’s renegotiation of creativity and genius, where it is the freedom to create new rules that is important rather than either the complete limitation that would lead to simple imitation—Kant claims that “Everyone agrees that genius is entirely opposed to the spirit of imitation” (5: 308), which connects back to Lyotard’s criticisms of realism in art—or the absolute freedom that results in its own sort of stasis.

The production or self-generation of new rules that Kant ascribes to genius thus connects up with both his own account of autonomy, but also the freedom of Levrekühn’s strict style (and that of the magic square) and furthermore, the impetus of modern art to revel in and celebrate the new and the difficult. Precisely like Schoenberg’s thinker, who kept on searching beyond mere comfort, to find something problematic and difficult, ever so…

 

NOTES

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Strindberg’s full comments are much more bleak than Schoenberg’s paraphrase conveys. They come from a diary entry from the 3rd of September 1903, where Strindberg writes that, “Life is so abominably ugly, we humans so abysmally evil, that if a writer were to describe everything he has seen or heard, no one could bear to read it. There are things I remember seeing and hearing, in the company of good, respectable popular people, that I have deleted, have never been able to discuss and do not want to remember. Education and culture seem like mere masks worn by the beast, and virtue merely dissimulation. Our highest achievement is to conceal vileness. Life is so cynical that only a swine can feel comfortable in it. And whoever is able to see this ugly life as beautiful is a swine! Life is certainly a punishment! A hell; for some, a purgatory, but a paradise for no one.” (quoted in Krasner, 107).

[2] Leverkühn’s evocation of the interstellar void also recalls the “disproportion of man” that Blaise Pascal writes of in his Pensées:

So let us contemplate the whole of nature in its full and mighty majesty, let us disregard the humble objects around us, let us look at this scintillating light, placed like an eternal lamp to illuminate the universe. Let the earth appear a pinpoint to us beside the vast arc this star describes, and let us be dumb-founded that this vast arc is itself only a delicate pinpoint in comparison with the arc encompassed by the stars tracing circles in the firmament. But if our vision stops there, let our imagination travel further afield. Our imagination will grow weary of conceiving before nature of producing. The whole of the visible world is merely an imperceptible speck in nature's ample bosom, no idea comes near to it. It is pointless trying to inflate our ideas beyond imaginable spaces, we generate only atoms at the cost of the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and its circumference nowhere.

Pascal, writing nearly 300 years before Leverkühn and Mann, puts forward the abyss of the cosmos is equally expressive terms. It is worth noting that Pascal’s resort to the imagination to attempt to encompass the vastness of the universe also pre-empts and foreshadows the use that Kant will make of the imagination in relation to the sablime in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, as will be examined in the next section. But Pascal continues, finding in the minute of the microscopic another vastness imcomprehensible to man:

I want to make us see within it a new abyss. I want to depict for us not only the visible universe, but the immensity of what can be conceived about nature within the confines of this miniature atom. Let us see in it an infinity of universes, of which each has its own firmament, planets, and earth in the same proportion as in the visible world, in this land of animals, and ultimately of mites, in which we will find the same as in the first universe, and will find again in others the same thing, endlessly and perpetually. Let us lose ourselves in these wonders, which are as startling in their minuteness as others are in the vastness of their size. For who will not be amazed that our body, which was not perceptible in an imperceptible universe within the whole, is now a giant, a world, or rather an everything, in comparison with this nothingness we cannot penetrate?

Ultimately, against these two abysses Pascal considers the place of humanity and finds it lacking against the wider abyssal lack of nature:

For in the end, what is humanity in nature? A nothingness compared to the infinite, everything compared to a nothingness, a mid-point between nothing and everything, infinitely far from understanding the extremes; the end of things and their beginning are insuperably hidden for him in an impenetrable secret (66-7).

Nietzsche, in a parable found in the essay ‘On Truth and Falsity in a Nonmoral Sense’ depicts the bleakness of humanity against the vastness of the universe:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history’, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. – One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened (79)

The anti-humanism that both Pascal and Nietzsche find in the vastness of the universe is precisely that path that Leverkühn also follows.

[3] This polyhedron, and the influence of Dürer in general, can also be found in the work of Anselm Kiefer (see especially Der Rhein (Melancholia), 1982-2013; Woman of Antiquity, 2002; Melancolia, 1990-91; Melancolia, 2004). Much of Kiefer’s work draws on similar influences and ideas as that of Zurücknehmen. Kiefer’s use of lead as a favored material also evokes the influence of Saturn. For in alchemical texts the planet was associated with this element.

[4] Ernst Cassirer, who worked with Warburg in Hamburg explores this idea of the development from superstition to science, and the connection between the two in their symbolic nature, in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–1929).

[5] It also recalls the consequence that Jacques Derrida draws from Kant’s Superior Tone Essay, that “each of us it the mystagogue and the aufklärer of the other” (142).